Recent events are indicative of the political pressure on President Joseph Kabila, and of how he reacts to it. On Wednesday, April 8, several members of the co-ordinating committee of La Lucha, an activism movement that aims to mobilise young Congolese against Mr Kabila’s plans to stay in power, were arrested in Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Police rounded them up for handing out flyers – the reason given for their arrest is ‘disturbing the peace’.
Other activists who belong to Filimbi, a broad coalition of activists to which La Lucha belongs, are still in detention after their arrest on March 15. Their continued detention is illegal, as they have not been charged or presented to a judge. They are being held by the intelligence services, not the police.
These arrests come amid an increasingly loud debate over a mass grave at Maluku, 80km from Kinshasa. Locals first raised the alert over the mass grave, which they say was filled in the middle of the night. The government says that the bodies buried there – numbering 421 – are those of unclaimed indigents and stillborn babies from Kinshasa’s morgues, but many believe that the bodies are those of protesters killed in January when Mr Kabila’s Presidential Guard violently repressed student protests.
Witnesses say there were many more adult bodies than the government claims, and ask why a normal burial would involve masked soldiers (as they say this one did) or take place in the dead of night. Those protests, too, opposed his continued stay in power – they were against the wording of a bill that would have required a census before the presidential election, which most people suspected would be used as a pretext to push the elections back.
The Maluku mass grave has become a major talking point on social media and, we hear, in Congolese society at large, and has started to make a splash in international media. On Wednesday, the Belgian foreign ministry urged an “independent and credible investigation” into the grave.
There is no denying that political pressure in the DRC is increasing steadily, and Mr Kabila’s strong-arm tactics are not helping. As soon as there is another flashpoint – any incident that the hostile population will interpret as a clear sign that Mr Kabila wants to stay in power – then we think violence is likely.
The danger of a coup d’état is also increasing as it becomes clearer that the DRC does not want Mr Kabila, which is prompting more insiders in his regime to make other plans that do not include him. The only thing Mr Kabila can do to defuse popular tensions is to actually step down when his current term ends next year, but that would not avert the danger of a coup.
For the past year Mr Kabila has been exploring different strategies to allow him to stay in power beyond his second and constitutionally last term, which ends in 2016. In January, he attempted to introduce a law that would have required the holding of a census before the election – this is what prompted the mass marches later that month, and the deadly police crackdown whose victims are suspected to have been buried at Maluku. His majority backed down on the census idea but there is still suspicion that he will try to find a way of staying in power.
For the next year developments in this area, and his people’s reaction to any moves on the part of Mr Kabila, will play the biggest role in risk. Governance and policy-making will suffer as all Mr Kabila’s political energies are focussed on remaining the leader of a country that hates him. The political situation in the DRC should be considered unstable, with risk trending negative.
Domestic security risk and an unstable political environment represent significant threats to sustained economic growth and development. The lack of adequate infrastructure – specifically referring to poorly maintained transport networks and constrained electricity supply – also continues to adversely affect economic dynamics.
Francois Conradie (Political Analyst)